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FORT WORTH, Texas - Five-hundred-and-thirty-nine miles separate Billy the Kid's grave site in Fort Sumner, N.M., and his other official burial plot in Hamilton, Texas. That's approximately the same number of theories there are about where the gunslinger was born, what his real name was, how many people he actually killed and, of course, when and where he died.

Authors and historians have devoted careers to the subject. For the rest of us, a weekend car trip on a 925-mile Billy the Kid Trail from Fort Worth through New Mexico and back to West Texas offers sufficient opportunity to view some spectacularly desolate scenery, drop in on a few of the cheesiest (and, therefore, most entertaining) tourist traps and, if we're so inclined, ponder the improbable ways history morphs into legend and how fact is almost always less fun than myth.

Start with a two-hour stretch heading west from Fort Worth on Interstate 20. Getting to Fort Sumner in northeast New Mexico takes about seven hours if you limit bathroom stops and stick to the speed limit. It's worth noting the old smokestack ruins just off I-20 at Thurber, which has a minor reputation as a ghost town. Stop to gawk and stretch your legs if you must, but don't dawdle. Just past Sweetwater you'll turn northwest on U.S. 84 to Lubbock, and for the next 90 minutes you'll be treated to excruciatingly dull views of cotton fields and cattle pastures. This will give you time to consider everything we know for certain about Billy the Kid, his life and death, which essentially consists of:

Nothing. Zip. Nada.

What's in a name? It's generally assumed the Kid's birth name was William or Billy Bonney, and after a while he did call himself that. But he was probably born Henry McCarty - though some researchers think his real first name was William. After his mother married a man named Antrim, Henry/Billy used his stepfather's last name for a while. There's also some dispute about what year Billy was born - 1859 gets the most support, but anything three years on either side of that is possible. His place of birth was New York City, unless it was Buffalo Gap, Texas, or someplace in Indiana.

Sometime in Billy's childhood, his mother - who some believe was actually his aunt - probably took him to Kansas, then Colorado and eventually Silver City, N.M. Catherine Antrim, occasionally identified as Katherine, may have run a boardinghouse or baked pastries or worked as a prostitute. She died in 1874, and her teenage son was left on his own. He stole some horses, or cattle, or items of clothing, got in trouble with the law, fled to Arizona and, in 1877, killed a man named Frank Cahill, who had been teasing him. Depending on which book you read or Billy Web site you visit, the Kid went on to kill as few as four or as many as 20 more victims. He obviously wasn't reluctant to pull the trigger of the gun he may or may not have shot left-handed.

Not long after plugging Cahill, the saddle tramp now known as William Bonney - or, possibly, Kid Antrim - enlisted as a hired gun in New Mexico's infamous Lincoln County War of 1878-81. Billy's boss, John Tunstall, got gunned down early on, and the Kid spent the next months shooting and being shot at. At one point the New Mexico governor offered amnesty to all involved, but Billy the Kid, as he was now known, was arrested instead. He escaped for a while, came back (common sense, apparently, not being a Billy trait), shot and was shot at some more and by 1880 was captured and charged with the murder of a deputy. Sentenced to hang, he escaped from jail in Lincoln on April 28, 1881, killing two lawmen in the process.

Again not demonstrating common sense, Billy stuck around New Mexico long enough for newly elected sheriff Pat Garrett - who might have been the Kid's close friend, unless he wasn't - to learn that the now-famous fugitive was hanging out in Fort Sumner (the New Mexico papers, predecessors of modern-day tabloids, loved writing about a larger-than-life Kid, who was probably short and scrawny). It was there on the night of July 14 that Garrett shot and killed Billy or one of Billy's sidekicks or a friend who resembled Billy. Billy either died on the spot and was buried there, or was wounded and escaped, or wasn't shot at all and fled to Texas, where he perhaps assumed the persona of William ''Brushy Bill'' Roberts and lived to a great old age in Hico and nearby Hamilton.

One of the few undisputed facts in the Kid canon is that in 1950, an aging Roberts traveled to New Mexico to petition the governor for a pardon. He either forgot some key facts about his life or couldn't make up convincing lies - he bumbled through the meeting, and the governor declared Brushy Bill a fraud. By that time, thanks to almost three-quarters of a century of myth-building, Billy-obsessed tourists were underwriting the Fort Sumner economy. New Mexico wasn't going to concede him to Texas. Undaunted, Hico claimed him as its own. Brushy Bill died just months after being spurned in New Mexico and was buried in Hamilton, and the corpse competition was on.

Hitting the homestretch: By now, having thought through all this, you've probably arrived in Lubbock. Drive straight through on U.S. 84, heading to the New Mexico border and Clovis. If you've brought the kids, amuse them for the next 80 miles with games such as guessing how many bugs will splatter on the windshield in the next 10 minutes, or if that tiny smudge on the horizon might really turn out to be a tree. When you cross the city limits of Clovis, with its Wal-Mart and tattoo parlors, it may seem like you've reached the cradle of civilization. Don't despair. The trip is about to pick up, big time.

Just past Clovis, the land changes. Now the road cuts through a sea of rounded hills festooned with yellow grass; the wind slashes past, sweeping along enormous tumbleweeds that disintegrate against the side of your car with a series of loud crunches. You'll suddenly have a better understanding of what desolate means. There's an overwhelming sense of foreboding; of course, Billy the Kid and other itinerant gunslingers sought out, and felt comfortable in, these edgy climes. Even before you complete the 50-minute drive between Clovis and Fort Sumner, you'll have the sense of geographic and emotional separation from everyday life that is the unspoken reason most of us travel.

Cheesy charm: And then Fort Sumner and its cheesy charms are in sight, and the starkness is leavened by historical slapstick. On one side of the road is the Billy the Kid Country Inn, a hovelish collection of boxes.' On the other is the Billy the Kid Museum, open Monday through Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sundays 11-5. On this day, license plates in the parking lot indicate that folks from Kansas, California, Idaho, Texas and New Jersey have just paid $4 each (kids 6-11, $2; senior citizens, $3.50) to come in and peruse several rooms full of newspaper clippings, wanted posters, antique furniture and a mongo collection of Billy-related souvenirs ranging from wooden nickels to $25 sweatshirts.

There's actually very little having directly to do with Billy, because Billy wasn't much for material possessions, with the exception of other people's horses. A rifle that he may have owned is on display. There's a rock Billy allegedly carved his name on. And there's a frilly pair of black chaps the Kid supposedly wore to dances. That may be why he had to shoot so many people. The chaps will be a mandatory costume should Billy's life ever be made into a Broadway musical.

And, of course, there's the one photo of the Kid that everybody agrees is authentic. It was snapped sometime in 1879-81 in Fort Sumner. The youth captured in grainy sepia looks anything but lethal. He's wearing a modified top hat, baggy shirt and pants, raggedy vest and knotted bandanna. His right hand balances a rifle, and a gunbelt sags around his waist, but the effect of this artillery display is more than offset by the IQ-challenged expression on Billy's face. He has buck teeth and floppy ears. If this stripling were alive today, he'd be failing high-school shop class.

Museum owner Don Sweet is happy to explain why Billy belongs to New Mexico rather than Texas: ''Over there, they've got their history messed up. You hate to see it. Look at this - we've got the curtains from the room where Billy was killed.''

A few years ago, there was some talk of exhuming the Billy bodies in Fort Sumner and Hamilton and comparing DNA to the corpse of Billy's mother, interred in Silver City, N.M. It never happened; Silver City authorities wouldn't allow Katherine/Catherine Antrim's remains to be disturbed. Sweet insists the tests would have validated his Billy, ''but that wouldn't have a done a thing, because those people in Texas just would have insisted there was something wrong with the testing process.'' His display area includes framed front pages of New Mexico newspapers mocking Brushy Bill Roberts.

A mile south on a clearly marked side road - ''Old Fort Sumner Museum Authentic (Real) Gravesite of Billy the Kid'' - is the shrine. Billy's grave is protected by a bulky chain-link cage. In New Mexico, at least, he's not spending eternity alone. The stone marker commemorates ''Pals: Tom O'Folliard, died Dec. 1880 - Charlie Bowdre, died Dec. 1880 - William H. Bonney Alias Billy the Kid Died July 18'' (the rest of the inscription is eroded). Fans have left mementos of their visits; pennies, nickels and dimes are scattered in tribute, and somebody tossed an empty Jim Beam pint bottle.

The museum itself parallels Sweet's - antique items dating back to Billy's era, but not directly related to him, newspaper clippings extolling the genuineness of New Mexico's Billy as opposed to the Texas fraud, and all manner of souvenirs. Because the grave site is in an enclosed area behind the museum, there's the intended impression that you have to pay $3.50 (kids 8-14, $2.50) to go through the museum and out into the graveyard, but you really don't. You can just walk around to the back.

Frankly magnificent: And that's about all the Billy stuff there is to do in Fort Sumner. So hop back in the car and take New Mexico state Road 20 south toward Roswell. After 30 miles, you'll run in to U.S. 285. Stop for lunch in Roswell, taking care to admire the globes of downtown street lights. These have been decorated with black decals to resemble alien faces. But this trip is about Billy the Kid, not invaders from outer space, so turn west on U.S. 70/380, which, 45 minutes later, turns into the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway. In theory rather than practice, it's officially 84 miles in a rough circle that takes you through Lincoln, Capitan, south to Ruidoso and east back to where you started. But Billyites need only get to Lincoln, which is frankly magnificent.

In this well-preserved old town, and only here, is there any sense of actual, gunpowder-tinged history. There are several museums, each costing about $6 to get in, that include mention of Billy the Kid - but as an element of local history rather than the foundation of it. Lincoln's Billy is a violent kid briefly swept up in equally violent events - the old courthouse from where he made his daring escape is part of the Lincoln State Monument, a singular name for an adobe time-warp multiple-building display that's pristine enough to catapult your imagination back to 1881. There are no dinky motels and cheap trinkets, just honest displays realistically representing the past. Park your car and walk around; you'll swear Billy might pop up from behind a rock and greet, rather than shoot, you.

If you must, plow on for the other three-quarters of the official route, but you'll be driving for scenery rather than Billy. The Smokey Bear exhibits in Capitan (hometown of the original forest-fire-loathing bruin) and the racetrack in Ruidoso Downs aren't exactly the stuff of rustling and gunfights. (Well, maybe the racetrack is.)

Texas twist: Now, you're well-versed in the legend and lore of New Mexico Billy. The Texas version awaits discovery. Return to Roswell and head due east on U.S. 380, which will whoosh you back without the annoyance of negotiating any curves. Three hours later at Post, turn southeast on U.S. 84 and cruise 70 miles to I-20. Ninety minutes after that, turn south on narrow Texas 108, a charming little trail. Pass through Stephenville and go another 20 miles or so to Hico, which you'll know is coming when all the Billy the Kid billboards start appearing. Billy may or may not have killed one man for every year of his short life, but if the same ratio is true of Hico's Kid-related signs, Billy lived to be about 103.

In all ways, Hico has adopted the ''say it loud, say it proud'' approach to using Billy as a lure to tourists. A gilded ''Billy'' statue waves a pistol on the north side of the town square. It looks a lot more heroic than the buck-toothed photo. An adjacent plaque reads, ''Ollie L. 'Bushy Bill' Roberts alias Billy the Kid died in Hico Texas December 27, 1950. He spent the last days of his life trying to prove to the world his true identity and obtain the pardon promised him by the Gov. of the state of New Mexico. We believe his story and pray to God for the forgiveness he solemnly asked for.''

The Billy the Kid Museum on North Pecan Street is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sundays 1-4 p.m. (adults $3, students $2, kids under 12 free). Owner Marguerite Thomas is predictably disdainful of her Fort Sumner competition, though she's careful not to call anyone in New Mexico an outright liar.

''We take nothing away from New Mexico and their part of Billy's history; we just say Pat Garrett killed the wrong man,'' Thomas declares. ''Where Brushy Bill [Roberts] is concerned, I believe there's more documentary evidence the old man was who he says he was than not.''

Her husband, David, knows exactly why the DNA test plan fizzled - ''New Mexico backed out'' - and invites a close look at the Hico museum exhibits, which include no actual Billy-owned items but do feature copies of many official documents and letters Billy wrote to the New Mexico governor, who promised pardons for all the Lincoln County War participants but excluded the Kid. There are posters from movies that included Billy in their casts. There are also souvenir Billy key chains, postcards, bandannas and wooden nickels almost identical to the ones on sale in Fort Sumner. A box of Billy the Kid dominoes will set you back $22.95, but the John Wayne toilet tissue is a reasonable $1.50 per roll. The fresh strawberry pie available at the nearby Koffee Kup Family Restaurant for $3.59 a slice has nothing to do with Billy or John Wayne, but it may be the best buy in Hico.

Brushy Bill's supposed life story is convoluted in the extreme, so the Hico museum offers several books purporting to tell the real tale. In general, they all agree that Billy survived the Fort Sumner shootout and fled to Texas, where he worked at all sorts of jobs, including one as a Pinkerton agent, before settling in Hico and nearby Hamilton under the assumed named of Roberts. Late in life he confessed his real identity and made the trip to New Mexico to plead for clemency. Rebuffed as a fraud by state officials who wanted to keep the Billy legend on their side of the Texas-New Mexico border, Roberts sadly came home to die and promptly did.

There may be only one authentic photo of Billy the Kid, but there seem to be hundreds of Brushy Bill Roberts. His hairy countenance is even painted on the outer wall of the First National Bank of Hico. Regardless of whether he was really Billy, ol' Brushy had a keen marketing sense that's now the economic life support of his hometown.

Dignified end: Which is why, really, it's so appropriate our last stop on this Billy the Kid Trail is a destination with some dignity. Thirty miles south of Hico on U.S. 281, Brushy Bill Roberts is buried in a lovely, unnamed cemetery on the outskirts of Hamilton. This grave is the antithesis of the mawkish shrine in Fort Sumner.

On the row of resting places nearest the highway, a simple gray granite marker reads ''William Henry Roberts A.K.A. Billy the Kid Born 31 December 1859 Died 27 December 1950.'' A small, waist-high marble arch over the marker is inscribed ''Billy the Kid.'' And that's it - no signage proclaiming the spot for miles in every direction, no whiskey bottles or coins tossed in messy tribute. Apparently an older, cruder gravestone was replaced years ago, but there's no one at the cemetery to ask.

Free admission and no proselytizing on behalf of one ersatz Billy or another is just the right final touch. Rest in peace, Billy, wherever you are - and, in your next lifetime, lose those girly chaps.

Looking for the real Billy the Kid

New Mexico

Fort Sumner:

Billy the Kid Museum, 1601 E. Sumner Ave. (U.S. 84). Open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission $4; $2 ages 6-11; $3.50 senior citizens. 505-355-2380.

Old Fort Sumner Museum, U.S. 60 and Billy the Kid Road. Open daily (hours may vary; call ahead). Admission $3.50; $2.50 kids 8-14. 505-355-2942.

Ruidoso Downs:

Billy the Kid National Scenic Byway Visitors Center, U.S. 70 West. 505-378-5318,



Billy the Kid Museum, Hico Town Square (North Pecan Street). Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission $3; $2 students; kids under 12 free. 254-796-4004.